A California school district in Los Angeles County has ruled that some of the greatest novels ever written in America, including “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and “Of Mice and Men,” cannot be taught in their schools.
The Burbank Unified School District (BUSD) ruled that not only those timeless classics but also Theodore Taylor’s “The Cay” and Mildred D. Taylor’s “Roll of Thunder” would be excluded from the district’s curriculum.
“The BUSD’s reading list hasn’t been revised in three decades,” The Los Angeles Times noted.
The district’s decision followed four parents alleging that the novels caused potential harm to their children, as Newsweek reported. One parent, Carmenita Helligar, claimed her daughter had been harassed by a white student who used a racial taunt including the N-word after he had read “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.” She said another boy told her daughter, “My family used to own your family and now I want a dollar from each of you for the week.”
“When the principal was notified, the boy’s excuse was that he had read it in class — also in ‘Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.’ Helligar believed the principal was dismissive of the incident,” The Los Angeles Times reported.
Helligar added, “My daughter was literally traumatized. These books are problematic … you feel helpless because you can’t even protect your child from the hurt that she’s going through.”
Nadra Ostrom, another parent filing a complaint, stated, “There’s no counter-narrative to this black person dealing with racism and a white person saving them.” She argued the curriculum assumes assumes “that racism is something in the past.”
But Sungjoo Yoon, 15, a sophomore at Burbank High School, created an online petition on Change.org countering the ban, writing:
In a time where racism has become more transparent than ever, we need to continue to educate students as to the roots of it; to create anti-racist students. These literatures, of which have been declared “Books that Shaped America” by the Library of Congress, won Newbury Medals, and are some of the most influential pieces, cannot disappear.
The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) wrote BUSD, “We believe that the books… have a great pedagogical value and should be retained in the curriculum.”
PEN America (Poets, Essayists, Novelists) created a petition stating:
We the undersigned object to the news that several books dealing with the subject of race in America—Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Theodore Taylor’s The Cay, and Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry—have been temporarily banned within Burbank public school classes, while the Board determines whether or not to ban them entirely. We call upon the district to lift the temporary ban and allow these books to be taught in Burbank classrooms.
Each of the books in question deal with difficult subject matter from our country’s complicated and painful history, including systemic racism. In a year when we have seen a national movement against systemic racial injustice, it is crucial to bring these subjects into the classroom with care and sensitivity, which teachers are well-equipped to do. Blocking engagement with these important books is also avoiding the important role that schools can and should play in providing context for why these books inspire and challenge us still today.
We understand that this ban may have been proposed with good intentions. But banning books is not the answer. Informed guidance from trained educators would allow students to learn about their world and themselves from these book’s challenging stories and ideas in a supported space.
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